Harvard’s Gay Persecution: Unnatural Acts Review
Speaking before Harvard’s Secret Court investigating the crime and embarrassment of homosexuality on campus, an undergraduate named Stanley Gilkey explains that the only reason he associated with the accused was because he was a “budding criminologist” studying them. He knew they were homosexual because of their tell-tale “common symptoms,” including “effeminate gestures, allergies to coarse fabrics, raw bitten cuticles, disparate thinking, the inability to look a woman in the eye, suicidal tendencies, unreliable character, poor hand to eye co-ordination, handwriting that slants from right to left, a voice pitched a half octave above the average man’s. The list goes on.”
As the actor playing Gilkey explains at the end of “Unnatural Acts,” Tony Speciale’s riveting play at the Classic Stage Company, Gilkey was one of only two of the dozen accused that the Harvard court found not guilty. After graduation he became a Broadway producer, “and the first general manager of Lincoln Center.” When he died, we are told, it was “in San Francisco, surrounded by friends and companions.”
His classmates were not so lucky. Many of these expelled sons of Harvard committed suicide, sooner or later, or in other ways self-destructed.
For 80 years, the true story of Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920 remained buried. A mere decade ago, an enterprising undergraduate named Amit Paley digging through the university’s archives discovered it, pushed for access, and when the university finally released the records with the names redacted, did painstaking research to recover the students’ identities.
Paley’s discovery has been the subject of newspaper articles, magazine pieces, a book, and even another play. “Veritas” by Stan Richardson, which had a sold-out run at the New York International Fringe Festival last summer, is so similar to “Unnatural Acts” in its approach to the story – so many of the artistic choices are almost identical – that it seems beyond the possibility of a coincidence. (This may explain why the website for “Unnatural Acts” has an unusually detailed timeline recounting its genesis and development.)
The two plays have some of the same strengths: chilling scenes of the interrogations, some inventive stagecraft. They also share some of the same flaws. Both choose to give almost equal weight to such a large number of characters that it becomes difficult to remember which one is which; more importantly, the audience is not allowed to spend enough time with individual characters to be moved the way we should by what happens to them.
For all their similarities, “Unnatural Acts,” co-authored by director Speciale and some members of the ensemble, is the clearly superior play – more straightforward and focused, less pretentious. The dialogue is more credible and more accessible (The records of the Secret Court were hand-written and not verbatim transcripts, so the dialogue is largely imagined.)
“Unnatural Acts” is being given a superb production at CSC, well-directed, wonderfully acted, well-designed. There are so many tiny moments of insight, and such great ensemble acting, that we forgive the rare lapses into theatrical excess. The production is especially good in capturing moments of group panic and mutual accusation.
When one of the accused, a dental student, suggests that they should fight, his classmate, the son of a Congressman, replies: “You’re not going to win, Eugene.
This is Harvard, not the Alamo. I’m just trying my damnedest to walk out of Johnston Gate without a scarlet letter.”
That he didn’t succeed at such a modest goal is a tragedy, a waste – and just one example of the kind of destruction that bigotry and ignorance continue to wreak. But it was also a commonplace occurrence — yes, exactly not the Alamo. There is something uncomfortable about the multiple retelling of this one story. Would there be a book and two plays about the expulsion of gay students at, say, the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky (in 2006), John Brown University in Arkansas (2007), California Lutheran High School (upheld by a California court in 2009), or the expulsion of the child of lesbians from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School in Boulder, Colorado (2010)?
At Classic Stage Company
Conceived and directed by Tony Speciale
Set design is by Walt Spangler, lighting by Justin Townsend, costumes by Andrea Lauer and original music and sound design by Christian Frederickson.
Cast: Jess Burkle, Joe Curnutte, Frank De Julio, Roe Hartrampf, Roderick Hill, Max Jenkins, Brad Koed, Jerry Marsini, Devin Norik, Will Rogers and Nick Westrate.
Unnatural Acts is scheduled to run through Sunday, July 10.
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